The Year’s Best Series Finale Goes to Mad Men

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by AMC, HBO, FX and NBC
Announcing...The Best Series Finale
Photo-illustrations by Maya Robinson

All this week, the Vulture TV Awards honor the best television from the past year.

The nominees are:

Mad Men
Parks and Recreation
The Jinx

And the winner is ...

Mad Men

The Mad Men finale “Person to Person” came close to being all things to all people. That almost never happens. Series creator Matthew Weiner — who wrote and directed the finale as well as the penultimate episode “The Milk and Honey Route” — pulled it off by paying his characteristic careful attention to everything that led up to it, arranging all the various character and plot pieces so that when everything paid off, you felt in retrospect as if it were all inevitable, even though you didn’t see it coming.
The story closed out with one old relationship and two new ones poised for maybe-permanence (Pete and Trudy, Peggy and Stan, Roger and Marie), and another one in tatters (Joan and Richard; he made the mistake of asking her to choose between her business and him). But these were of a piece with the episode’s “life goes on” imagery, which included a haunting shot of Sally assuming some of the domestic duties ceded by her soon-to-be-dead mother, Betty (in reruns, every time the former Mrs. Draper lights a cigarette, you’ll feel a twinge of anxiety). Presumably Don ended up back at McCann, the agency which, in real life, created the episode-closing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” jingle, and Weiner planted enough sly bits of historically rooted foreshadowing throughout season seven to help viewers arrive at this conclusion without having to mangle the evidence. (For more details, click here.)

Still, this was not a puzzle-box ending, because Mad Men was not a puzzle-box show. It was always about psychology, and how the personality is shaped (sometimes distorted or re-formed) as it travels through personal and national history.

Weiner brought it all back home in the episode’s longest unbroken shot, a close-up of a man in group therapy (identified as “Leonard”) sharing a horrible, recurring nightmare that is about feeling unrecognized and unloved, perhaps unworthy of love. Don’s response is to embrace him: a radical act for such a closed-off character, and one that suggests a life-changing epiphany. But it doesn't come out of nowhere. It's not merely believable — it is the best, most appropriate ending given everything the show has told us about Don. In fact, the last few minutes of "Person to Person" feel so preordained (happily so) that they have the ring of prophecy fulfilled.

It wasn’t until I re-watched the entire series that I realized this scene and the closing shot — a dolly-in to a close-up of Don meditating, then smiling as a bell chimes to introduce the Coke ad — were both predicted by a scene in season two’s “The Mountain King," where Don gets a tarot card reading from the original Don Draper’s wife, Anna. Don notices the “Judgment” card and jokes, “That can’t be good,” only to be told that it can symbolize the end of the world and/or death, but also resurrection, and that another card on the tabletop, the Soul of the World, is telling Don that he’s “part of the world — air, water — every living thing is connected to you,” and that “the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.” In the tarot card scene from season two, when Anna explains what the cards mean, there’s a shot from Don’s point of view looking at an open window. The wind is blowing the curtain, it’s lit by sunlight, and you can see and hear wind chimes. The final scene in Mad Men is lit by sunlight. Air, water, every living thing is connected to Don, and he’s part of the world, and on the soundtrack you can hear waves, a gentle breeze, and a chiming bell.

What a brilliant show this was.